One day when my granddaughter was eight or nine, we went Christmas shopping together. As we waited in a long line of cars to turn left under an overpass, we saw a homeless man holding up a cardboard sign at the end of the block. He was tall and big-boned with a Raggedy-Andy-length mop of tangled red hair. His dirty black trench coat had no buttons, and there were no strings to tie his weathered work boots.
As we sat in traffic, I tried to decide whether to give the man some money. I've developed a set of vague guidelines about that kind of thing over the years. The first question is always whether or not I can afford it. If I'm on my way to spend money for something other than basic necessities, I figure I can spare a little extra for someone else. The second issue is whether I can hand money to a stranger without putting myself in danger from him or from the surrounding traffic. The third factor, the argument I have with my cynical side every time the issue arises, is whether I'll be helping someone in need or encouraging a con artist. That argument usually ends the same way: I'd rather err on the side of kindness and let God sort out the other person's intentions.
On this particular occasion, all three criteria having been met, I decided I'd give the man enough money for a fast-food meal as soon as I got close enough to him. I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my purse (which was enough back then), tucked the purse between my hip and the car door, and waited for the light to change so we could move closer to the corner. We moved, but not far. I watched for the man to look in our direction, and when he did, I held the money up to the windshield and waved it to signal him. He quickly started walking toward us.
Just as the man stopped beside the car, I remembered that my car window mechanism had broken earlier in the week. The window wouldn't roll down. I had a fleeting moment of panic at the idea of opening the car door to a stranger when my granddaughter was with me, then I realized there was no possible way he could carjack us in traffic that was barely moving.
I opened the door and handed the money to the man. He smiled, gave his shaggy head a nod, said, "Thank you and God bless you," then turned away and walked back to the corner. The traffic light turned green, and we moved up only two or three places before it changed to red and brought us to a stop again.
After a moment, the man glanced back in our direction. He suddenly began waving his arms--big, frantic motions--and pointing behind us. His mouth was moving, but with the window up, I couldn't understand him. He started moving toward us again, first walking fast, taking big steps, then breaking into a run. Once again he stopped beside my car. His urgent demeanor made me nervous, but I opened the door enough to hear him. "Your bag," he said, breathing hard from the exertion. "Your bag fell out of your car."
I looked behind me and saw my purse lying at the edge of the road, back where I'd been when I gave him the money. There was Christmas-shopping cash in the purse, money I'm sure he could have used. Credit cards, too. A dishonest man would have recognized the opportunity, kept his mouth shut, and thanked his lucky stars. Not this man, though. I retrieved my purse and it was my turn to thank him. This time, his smile was even broader.
Every year since then, when I'm Christmas shopping, I think about that man. Thousands of people must have been shopping that day, but I can't imagine that anyone else got a better bargain than I did. Who knew it was possible to have one's faith in human nature restored for a mere five bucks?